We need to move beyond Open Streets.
Open Streets closes down auto-oriented streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul along major corridors and opens them up to pedestrians, cyclists, strollers and skaters. The transformation is astonishingly beautiful. But, when the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself “What’s the point?”
Herein lies a problem with tactical urbanism and Ciclovía-styled events. They must go beyond the event and aim for a greater good. Open Streets must be a tactic in a broader strategy, and merely raising awareness may not be enough to accomplish their mission of enhancing healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and civic pride.
I mean no disrespect to Open Streets. They’re an excellent organization and I support them 100 percent. But, amongst all their other much needed work, there needs to be collaboration on behalf of the cities beyond just permitting it. They need to join forces to help make these needed infrastructure adjustments the other 364 days of the year.
We have one of the best examples in our own backyard: Milwaukee Avenue.
Milwaukee Avenue Historic District runs for 2 blocks in South Minneapolis and is composed of small homes built for lower-income residents between 1880 and 1890 on quarter-sized lots. Deterioration occured throughout the second World War and preservationists in the 1970s helped save the homes and turn the street into a park. Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a magical place (especially after a fresh snow).
Closed streets have livablity, but what does that mean? It’s a soft, open-ended concept that doesn’t mean much. I wanted to see if the livability of a closed street created any monetary return. I took Milwaukee Avenue and compared the property values against a similar nearby street open to vehicle traffic.
There are no perfect equivalents when comparing complex urban environments. Here are important notes about the comparison:
- The homes along Milwaukee Avenue are small compared to their neighbors, but have better architectural character.
- The homes on 26th Avenue were likely built for middle-class residents, whereas Milwaukee Avenue homes were built for the city’s lower class.
- Commercial properties on the corner of each street at the intersection of Franklin Avenue were excluded.
- 26th Avenue South included three (3) tax-exempt properties owned by Hennpein County. In an effort to be fair, since no value is assessed on public record, I assigned each property the mean value of all other properties ($209,986).
Here is what I discovered:
- Milwaukee Avenue has 47 properties with an average value of $223,647 with an overall market rate taxable value of $10,511,400.
- 26th Avenue has 38 properties with an average value of $209,986 with an approximate market rate taxable value of $7,979,458.
In this comparison, the closed street has a total taxable value of $2,531,942 more than its neighborhood (approximately 31 percent). Again, I’d like to put this into perspective: Milwaukee Avenue has smaller lots, smaller homes and was originally built as affordable housing. This means the City of Minneapolis takes in about $43,043 more in property tax revenue per year on these two blocks.
There are wide streets all over Minneapolis that have limited functionality in our grid network. Upon repaving and/or reconstructing, we need to really examine whether or not we actually need these streets for vehicles, especially if the homes have adequate alleyway access.
This is where Open Streets comes back into the equation. How can they (and we) help sell this idea of a closed street as a permanent fixture for creating a permanent and tangible community value? I don’t believe that Open Street events are just “feel-good projects”, they are real economic development if transitioned into infrastructure. Imagine the value that could be created by the City of Minneapolis if they were to replicate the success of Milwaukee Avenue?
Note: If you support creating more vibrant, healthy places, consider donating to Open Streets Minneapolis.